India are playing 13 Tests at home this season, and they have made a winning start to it. On top of that, they have answered some of the questions that were still being asked of them during their series win in the Caribbean. In their 500th Test, the first of the series against New Zealand, each of the parts that make up the team performed pretty well together.
Murali Vijay and KL Rahul are going to be the openers for this Indian side for the foreseeable future. Rahul has impressed since he opened for the first time in Test cricket against Australia in early 2015, scoring a century in his first game at the top of the order. His career is just eight Tests old but he already has three hundreds in that time, and all of them away from home. Rahul made twin thirties in his first Test on home soil; not great numbers but he looked secure enough while he was at the crease to make you think that he can find success in India as he has elsewhere.
Then there is Murali Vijay. Since he was brought back into the Test team in the place of Gautam Gambhir in February 2013, he has scored 2169 runs at an average of 46 with five centuries. The best openers are the ones that you don’t really notice until they have 8000 Test runs and everyone is talking about how great they have been for a decade. Vijay is on his way to this kind of career. Unfussy run scoring on a consistent basis is what you want from your senior opener, and this is exactly what he has given this team.
The Middle Order
Virat Kohli failed in this Test, but he will succeed with the bat in the coming weeks and months. It would be foolish to bet against him being the leading Indian run-scorer across these 13 matches. Combined with Kohli’s supreme talent that will come good sooner or later, there is the return of an in-form Cheteshwar Pujara. Dropped for the latter half of the tour to the Caribbean, Pujara has returned to form spectacularly since he returned to India. Batting for India Blue in the Duleep Trophy he made 166 and 256 not out. Then in this game he made 62 and 78 and was brutal on anything that was loose from the bowlers. He looked to have put his poor form behind him.
The man that was brought into the side to replace Pujara in the West Indies was Rohit Sharma. It was a surprise to see him given a spot in the Caribbean and he looked steady enough as he made 41 in the second innings of the third Test. But he was under pressure coming into this series and with Ravichandran Ashwin becoming a steady batsman and succeeding at number six, Rohit was in need of runs. His excellent 68 not out that helped set up the declaration was a timely reminder of what he is capable of.
Four bowlers or five
In the Caribbean, India played five bowlers with Ashwin batting at six. Here they played both Pujara and Rohit Sharma and picked just four bowlers. It worked brilliantly, but as the Tests against England and Australia unfold, they may well want to contemplate finding a way to bring Amit Mishra into this team and still be able to pick two seamers. If all of the current top six are making runs it maybe a difficult choice to have to make, but it is a big boost to the team management to be able to contemplate a different team makeup and have confidence that it will work.
Having gone into this game with just two spinners there was a great deal of pressure on both Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja. Neither man looked like the added expectation held them back as they claimed 16 of the 20 New Zealand wickets that fell.
Ashwin went past 200 Test wickets in his 37th match, the second fastest to that landmark of all time. In the last two years, he has played 19 Test matches claiming 96 wickets at an average of 21.07. It has been a remarkable performance by a very fine bowler. His match figures of 10 for 225 meant that he was as responsible for this victory as any player.
Jadeja’s record in India is now nothing short of remarkable. In home Tests he has 56 wickets at an average of 16.35. In the final innings of this match he was parsimonious in the extreme bowling 162 dots in 189 balls. Jadeja seems to do so little with the ball, but when he gets it to grip he is often unplayable. That occasional miracle ball combined with his accuracy in line and length makes him a powerful weapon in these conditions.
The role of a seamer in India can sometimes descend to being nothing than taking the shine off the ball for the spinners. In the last innings of this Test it wasn’t even that as Ashwin took the new ball. It is a rough job for both Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav, and this wasn’t really the pitch that would give them much succour. Yadav at least kept things tight in the first innings and Shami picked up two wickets in the second innings, but for the most part they were observers rather than active participants.
It is difficult to be critical of them in conditions that so favoured the slower bowlers. But when you consider what was achieved by New Zealand seamer Trent Boult, the comparison is not a favourable one. Both Yadav and Shami will have better matches, but both should be automatic selections for the next Test.
Virat Kohli is still finding his way when it comes to Test captaincy but the signs are positive that he will prove to be an excellent leader and tactician. His team pushed on in their second innings when well in front to set up a well-timed declaration that gave his spinners the time they needed to dismiss New Zealand with overs to spare.
The one criticism that could be levelled against Kohli was that he seemed reluctant to bowl Ashwin and Jadeja in tandem in New Zealand’s first innings. But that is a very harsh critique of a man that led his side to a 197-run victory. This is a massive few months for him as a captain, he has begun in the best possible fashion.